Returning to Practice

I’ve been interviewing Millennials for work.

 

In one sense, that is no surprise at all.  Many of the students applying for graduate programs stay in the same age range.  I have, by contrast, gotten older.  Incoming students who were approximately my age (or older) are now the age of my children (or younger).  This is the nature of the cycle of life (cue the music from “The Lion King,” which is now considered “Classic Disney”).  So, why was this experience different?

 

First, and most important, was that I was not interviewing people for work in the Lab.  These were postdoctoral fellows applicants for Department of State positions.  The vast majority of them are still just a few years from their PhD dissertation, experiencing a very different world and context than I did when I was interviewing for my first faculty position.  Well, that suggests another difference: I interviewed for a faculty position, and never seriously considered a postdoc.  I have spent months engaged with discussions of the role of scientists and engineers engaged in Science Diplomacy, and the interplay of innovation and policy—quite frankly, the education I had come to Washington to have in this very interesting and challenging period.  These folks aren’t being recruited to work on my favorite projects, or to have exactly the sort of background I would like a GROUPER to have… but there was still a request from my unit chief for what sorts of people to identify in the stack of resumes and personal statements.

 

Signs of life.

 

I was starting to wonder about what that would look like in this context, and in fact, I was starting to question if my time away from the university had left me cynical or unable to see beyond my own narrow daily priorities.  Maybe it was a broader sense of unease with the sudden transition from a snowstorm in late March to 90 degree days in late April.  Where and how and when was I operating?  (I had come to feel a certain sense of stress and negative anticipation regarding my transition back to Purdue, starting in late March when I was requested to provide new course syllabi for my Fall classes.  There are new opportunities for next academic year, but after eight months here in Washington, I am neither ready to start right back in on the academic world, nor think in terms of another full annual cycle of activity here.)

 

And yet, my unit chief wanted me to not only be involved in the interviews, but to craft a few questions for them.  It was, as I have said before, a bit different to operate in support of others, instead of being my own “Principal,” but that is part of my learning these days.  I’ve also been learning a lot about the differences in cultures of science, and hearing about the distinct experiences of what I have come to call, “Millennial Scholars” (those who may be part of the generation born in 1985 or later, but also have completed their advanced STEM degree programs since 2010).  I’ve even produced a few of those people myself, but I already knew enough not to look for people just like Ashley or Karim or Marissa or Jeff (or those who are in the lab now).  The discussions in the AAAS meetings in Boston and Washington still had an immediacy and curiosity to me: I was meeting so many people interested in a concept, science policy, that I had long thought was an oxymoron.  Why were they interested in this?  What new was going on?

 

What are the challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, of these Millennial Scholars?

 

This is, in my experience with the lab, a “signs of life” question.  Signs of life it had become a part of my thinking at a time where spring is definitely upon us in Washington.  I’m walking much more around the city again, and over the past few weeks, I have been able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and new plants and warm weather.  In other words, “signs of life returning” was part of my daily experience.

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Figure 1. Signs of life: Tulips at the bus stop

 

The answers were also informative, as well as reminders of an earlier age.  There were those who seemed to have trouble thinking about themselves, and their colleagues, in such a comparative context.  However, this compared to several who actually commented about the relative lack of a sense of historical comparison as a weakness of Millennials.  What was another weakness?  There were several comments about the ease with which new information and new activities and experiences were available, leading to a sense of being dabblers in a variety of skills (“jacks / jills of all trades, masters of none”).  In fact, that ease of collecting and novelty even extended to the strengths and weaknesses of networking.  Although the world of embassies and interagency discussions and think tank receptions clearly indicates a value to the work of engaging with others… there is a difference between engaging in an effective, distributed knowledge network, and collecting friends and likes as a way of keeping score.

 

I found myself curiously replaying one conversation in my mind, about the concept that Millennials were more interested in finding ways to align their actions and employment with their passions.  Now remember, I lived in Cambridge, MA and California during the 1980s startup crazes, where people were all about passion.  I heard the Flower Children talking about living a life of meaning and service.  And, most importantly, I have learned how much my career as a professor is actually well aligned with my passion for exploration and sharing what I found.

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Figure 2. Albert sharing a sense of passion.  Maybe science diplomacy was never so far from my thinking after all.  (At the National Academies Keck Center, 500 E St NW)

 

Was this really different?  And then I heard an interesting alternative take on this thought.  “Well, if I can’t rely on a pension or Social Security to be around, there is no reason for me to trade boredom for security.”  From that discussion, I was transported back to the first few times I taught the course Sociotechnical Systems at Wisconsin. I had known about two different models of work and income as “covenants”:  income and status as a way of demonstrating success and favor, or work as a demonstration of one’s passion and artisan’s skills.  It took discussion and debate in class for me to learn that there was a large population with a third approach: work was something one does to get enough income to spend the rest of one’s time doing what one really preferred to do.  Apparently, lots of people live that way, whether they’re working second shift at the auto parts store, or vice president of global distribution for the auto parts company.  I have not chosen to live that way, and I can’t really imagine doing something I hate just to have the income to do what I love, later.  Is that what others were assuming we were all doing?  Or were others doing this a lot more than I was ever aware?

 

I felt like I had come full circle in the discussion, and my awareness of my own experience as a young scholar.  I am convinced that there are confusions in each generation, not sensing the range or intensity of experience from when prior generations were young and emerging, like new plants bursting into the sunlight and struggling against snow and wind and dangerous frost.  I can appreciate it much more now, because I have been in both places, and I have come to feel them both.  I am not yet done with the intensity of feeling and learning.  And yes, I am still pleased to take a moment on a Spring day and feel the sensual joy of lamb’s ear as I walk from meeting to office or home.  Because, even after a great enlightenment, a return to practice and repeat of small things still has value.

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Figure 3. Lamb’s ear on 19th St NW.  A good reminder of small lessons.

 

 

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